Forgive Us Our Skins & Scars: Thoughts on Race, Gender and Identity

“In the Punch and Judy show of our century…there are no more guilty and also, no responsible men. It is always, ‘We couldn’t help it’ and ‘We didn’t really want that to happen.’ And indeed, things happen without anyone in particular being responsible for them. Everything is dragged along and everyone gets caught somewhere in the sweep of events. We are all collectively guilty, collectively bogged down in the sins of our fathers and our forefathers…That is our misfortune, but not our guilt.” –  Friedrich Dürrenmatt,”The Visit”

In the years since I read Robert Graves autobiography Good-Bye to All That, what has stuck with me more than his story has been this quote. Paul Lassell concludes his introduction to my edition with these words meant to sum up the essence of Graves’ story. Though we are living in another century and a very different time, these words (especially those I have bolded) still aptly reflect our reality. They may be true of all human history.

My white skin, in particular, is stained with a collective guilt that ranges from persecuting Native Americans to enslaving Africans. My German heritage ties me to the genocide of Jews and my American lineage links me to the devastation of the atom bomb on the Japanese. My mother’s father draws me into the crimes of the Korean War. The privilege of my skin carries with it all the guilt of Wall Street’s greed and white economic and governmental imperialism over the last few centuries.

This is my misfortune, but is it my guilt? That is a question that I’ve been wrestling with for years.

In college, I imagined a painting of a girl sitting on the floor with the shattered mirror of a vanity behind her. Lying open on the floor around her are history books and newspapers emblazoned with stories of the white man’s violence and oppression. She sits cross-legged amidst them painting her skin brown. I never had the opportunity to make this painting a visual reality but it is still present in my mind.

As this image reflects, ultimately the question I’m wrestling with is one of identity.

Maybe as a woman I should feel more distance from the guilt of white men. But I’m as entangled and invested in the white man’s world as I am in the margins where so many women find themselves. Studying philosophy during my undergrad and in grad school my intellectual peers and mentors were primarily been men. I’m as at home among them as I am women. Both academically and relationally, I tend to straddle the gap between our male and female worlds.

Hunting for Dürrenmatt’s quote this morning, I rediscovered an unfinished reflection paper from grad school on the film “La Haine” (or Hate) and some essays by British cultural theorist and sociologist Stuart Hall. Opening the paper is a quote from Hall, who grew up in Jamaica in a family of Indian and British decent. He states, “If there is to be a serious attempt to understand present-day Britain with its mix of races and colors, its hysteria and despair, then writing about it has to be complex. It can’t apologize or idealize. It can’t be sentimental. It can’t attempt to represent any one group as having the total exclusive monopoly on virtue” (“Old and New Identities”, 60). Within a French context, Mathieu Kassovitz accomplishes this in “La Haine.”

Rich with complexity, containing both hysteria and despair, neither sentimental nor apologetic, “La Haine” is a story of guilt and identity told from the margins that gives us a sense of the complexity of our reality. The film follows three friends, Hubert (French African), Said (Arab) and Vinz (Jewish), living in the projects outside of Paris. It is the last day for two of them. Their story begins the night after a riot.

One of their friends is in the hospital as a result of police brutality and the ghetto is buzzing with the news that a cop lost his gun during the night. Hubert’s gym, which they tell us he has worked so hard to get, has been ruined by the riot. It would be easy to place all the guilt on the shoulders of the police and the privileged but the film does not allow you to.

In one memorable scene, the three young men go to visit their friend WalMart. Said asks WalMart for the money he owes him.  He responds, “I don’t have it. Don’t you know what happened?” He points out the window to his charcoaled car. It was not destroyed by police; it was torched by a guy from their neighborhood. While Hubert, Vinz and Said all make light of it, WalMart keeps repeating, “It’s all I had.” They remain unmoved when he asks, more to himself then them, “How will I get to work now?”

A few scenes later a cop is the one who steps in to defend Vinz and Hubert. He bails Said out of jail after he’d caused a scene in the hospital. He also offers to help Hubert get a City Grant for a new gym, around the same time that we learn Vinz may have helped destroy.

At the end of the film, Vinz picks a fight with a young cop as foolish and cocky as himself. The cop ends up accidentally killing him. The cop’s immediate loss of bravado and slumping body language give away his shame and regret. The scene ends with him quivering as he and Hubert hold guns to each other’s heads.

Echoing in the background could be Dürrenmatt’s words:  “It is always, ‘We couldn’t help it’ and ‘We didn’t really want that to happen.’ And indeed, things happen without anyone in particular being responsible for them. Everything is dragged along and everyone gets caught somewhere in the sweep of events. We are all collectively guilty…”

We are all collectively guilty. This is what I often think when drawn into our gender wars. I have been able to balance friendships with outspoken feminists and men who have become men’s rights activities because I see the oppression and violence on both sides and am aware of the less acknowledged oppression and violence that goes on within genders. We all are apart of systems which degrade the other’s dignity and objectify the other. The same is true about the complexity of oppression and violence within and between races and social classes.

What “La Haine” illustrates is that we are all in need of forgiveness for our skin and for the scars that we’re collectively and individually responsible for giving the Other. It illustrates that we are all equally human. This also means that we are equally wrapped up in the possibility for each other’s thriving. This is so much more important than these stains on our skins.

The film began with Hubert narrating, “Heard about the guy who fell off a skyscraper? He keeps saying to himself: ‘So far so good. So far so good. So far so good.’” At the end he continues this narration and finishes the story: “It’s about society falling. On the way down it keeps telling itself, ‘So far so good. So far so good. So far so good.’ How you fall doesn’t matter. It’s how you land.”

I always think about how the guy falling is deluding himself. That he’d be better served by facing the facts and figuring out how to respond. By taking responsibility for his situation and actually reacting to it. The same applies to us, to society. That is the only possibility for us to determine how we land. To determine who we are.

While I cannot wash these stains off my skin, I have chosen not to let the guilt of my father and forefathers (nor mother and grandmothers) become my own. Even as this collective burden humbles me and informs my choices and thinking, it does not entirely determine my identity. I need not have to paint my skin brown to be able to take pride in who I am. Just as Frantz Fanon, in his beautiful book Black Skin, White Mask, concluded that the black man need not wear a white mask to take pride in himself.

3 thoughts on “Forgive Us Our Skins & Scars: Thoughts on Race, Gender and Identity

  1. I have to admit, I did not enjoy this movie, for reasons I no longer remember. All I know is at the end, I was angry. I was angry at what a waste everyone had made out of each others lives, what a waste their decisions had brought them to. After reading your thoughts, I can now understand that I was angry because people can’t just leave each other in peace. Someone always has to be messing with someone else or making someone else more miserable than they are. Because, misery loves company. I know that ideas like “world peace,” and “why can’t we all just get along” are naive. But I can’t help but feel that this movie was an extreme example of needless violence, and that made me angry.

  2. I understand why it angered you. But I think that’s the point. The wastefulness in the film is meant to be productive for us. I feel like the intention is to make the viewer angry at needless violence in such a way that we’ll want to break the cycle of violence and waste it depicts.

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